American Dreamer: Memoirs of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central America and Beyond
By David Taylor Ives (Costa Rica 1980-82)
$ 35.00 (hardback); $22.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Jim Skelton (Ethiopia 1970-72)
The Foreword, written by Leymah Gbowee, and the Introduction, written by Muhammad Yunus, both of whom are Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, introduce David Ives as a humble, well respected and positive man who believes there is good in humanity. Both attribute to David several other admirable qualities, such as an unshakable sense of justice, tirelessly working to build world peace, and a philosophy of reverence for life. After reading that introductory material, it became clear to me that I was about to read an amazing story featuring a remarkable man who had been recognized as being quite extraordinary by two very exceptional individuals.
Moreover, I discovered that David is not only an outstanding person, he’s famous as well. Some evidence of his fame is found in a recent article on the Peace Corps Worldwide website about him and the book. Therein, it’s revealed that he’s the former Executive Director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute of Quinnipiac University, and has been an adjunct professor of Political Science, Philosophy, Latin American Studies, and International Culture. He’s the co-author of other books, including Nuclear Proliferation and the Dilemma of Peace in the Twenty-First Century, and Reverence for Life Revisited, and is also the Executive Producer of the 2005 Emmy-winning documentary Albert Schweitzer: My Life is My Argument. In addition, he has worked with leaders like President Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama, and served as the senior advisor to the Permanent Secretariat of the Summits of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. As though the above isn’t enough, he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times.
This memoir is divided into four distinct parts, the first of which begins in 1955 when David was “four-to-five years old,” and he contracted polio “literally weeks before the polio vaccine was widely available.” He was placed in an iron lung that he recalls “looked like a big white cigar,” and was kept in it for “about a week until the doctors were sure I could breathe on my own.” During treatment, his doctor advised his mother, Dorothy, that he “would never walk again without crutches or leg braces of some sort.” His mother didn’t tell David about that prediction until years later when he was an active teenager. It was his mother who believed that exercise was the key to his recovery, and it was she who led him through twice a day workouts six days a week for a year after he was released from the hospital until he was able to take four or five steps without the assistance of crutches or leg braces for support. This breakthrough had been his mother’s dream, so she “broke into tears” and ran to tell his father the wonderful news.
David takes the reader through a brief account of growing up in Pierpont, Ohio, which he describes as a very small town of 300 people and 3,000 cows, where his father served as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church. By the time he was in the second grade, his weakened right arm and left leg had become near normal size and he began to dream about playing baseball, which he was able to do when he entered the eighth grade. He even joined the wrestling team when he was a senior in high school and won the conference championship in his weight class, which was quite an impressive accomplishment given what he had to overcome from his battle against polio.
In Part II of the book, David covers several topics. He recounts his family’s journey through six countries in South America during the summer of 1967, where he “fell in love with Latin America,” his years at Ohio State University and views of the Vietnam War, and the shocking and devastating death of his mother at the hands of a drunk driver. All of the incidents contained in these chapters provide insights into the development of David’s philosophy of life and the way in which he became an idealistic humanitarian who railed against injustice.
In Part III, David combines the letters he wrote to his Dad when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Costa Rica from 1980 to 1982 with a series of italicized Author’s Notes, which serve to supplement and/or explain the information provided in those letters. This combination of 64 letters and 14 Author’s Notes covers slightly more than two-thirds of the text. The letters present an exchange of ideas between David and his Dad, although David’s voice is the only one that’s represented directly. It becomes apparent that David expects the letters to be shared with family and friends, and he even uses the greeting “Hola amigos” for two of them. The letters deliver a treasure trove of insightful glimpses into what he was doing, thinking and learning while living in Costa Rica as a PCV.
Part IV takes the reader “Beyond Costa Rica” into David’s life after the Peace Corps, starting in May 1983 with his marriage to Barbara, who was a fellow PCV in Costa Rica, and assuming his new position as Associate Dean of Students at Colorado College. Through Barbara’s involvement with international adoption issues, they became involved in escorting children from the Philippines to Denver where they handed them off to the adoptive parents. As a result of this activity, they eventually adopted their own one-year-old boy and girl from the Philippines and named them Taylor and Kelsey. He moves on to recount other experiences, such as being impressed by Jimmy Carter during and after his presidency, and being ashamed of the CIA’s activities in Chile and elsewhere. Although he’s definitely a patriotic American, David freely criticizes our government’s mistakes and/or failures, especially when they appear to be contrary to “the values expressed in our Declaration of Independence.”
Beginning in 1989, David began an 11-year term serving as the Executive Director of the Louis August Jonas Foundation, which ran a program called Camp Rising Sun near Rhinebeck, New York. The purpose of the camp was to bring “bright teenagers together from all over the world for eight weeks of leadership training and learning to resolve conflicts without violence.” As the director of the camp, he “made sure we accepted kids from countries with histories of conflict… and as many different cultures and races that we could get from around the US.” It’s obvious that he was very proud of the camp and the way in which it was run, and it seems to have been a perfect match with David’s high-level mentoring abilities and altruistic value system.
What David refers to as “Round Two” is depicted in Chapter Thirty-Four, wherein he recounts his second battle with a major disease, namely Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is also known as French polio. He could barely walk and collapsed onto the gurney when an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital in Albany. The symptoms were tingling and numbness that began in his feet and worked their way up through his body. He recalls “being pretty scared that I would die,” but made a “remarkable recovery” when the doctors used several bags of gamma globulin as a new treatment. He laments the exorbitant cost of the hospital stay and treatments, and restates Albert Schweitzer’s belief that there should be some source of funding for everyone’s medical care and treatment.
An ominous “Round Three” occurred when David was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease “a few years ago.” He openly admits “gradually beginning to drool and lose my fine motor skills,” which seems extremely unfair given his history with physical ailments. In fact, he admits being “mad at God” and asks why he has several major diseases, including “polio, post-polio syndrome, Guillain-Barre syndrome, carpel tunnel surgery, Type 2 diabetes, and now Parkinson’s.” Yet, he exclaims, “You are never going to keep me down.” He is truly an indefatigable fighter who gives the reader a wonderful example of how to remain positive despite virtually any obstacle. The opinion of Jose Zaglul at the end of the Afterword provides an excellent summary, as follows: “If we follow David’s life example and his commitment to make a difference in the world, that world will be a much better place.”
Reviewer Jim Skelton served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1970 to 72, and worked in the Smallpox Eradication Program there. He is the lead editor and a co-author of a book entitled Eradicating Smallpox in Ethiopia: Peace Corps Volunteers’ Accounts of Their Adventures, Challenges and Achievements, which was published by Peace Corps Writers in 2019. He has also published a memoir about his life as a PCV in Ethiopia, Volunteering in Ethiopia: A Peace Corps Odyssey.
Jim has practiced law for more than 44 years, specializing in upstream international petroleum transactions in emerging markets. His work has taken him to over 35 countries in Europe, the Former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and North and South America. He served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Houston Law Center from 2008 to 2016, teaching the course in “Energy Law: Doing Business in Emerging Markets,” and is a co-author of the second edition of the textbook Doing Business in Emerging Markets: A Transactional Course. He has published 25 articles for legal periodicals and books, as well as six book reviews for PC Worldwide, and has made 18 presentations at international conferences in Houston, Dallas, London and Moscow.